PLAN 72: Interview
Interview: Amy Glasmeier

New Head, Department of Urban Studies and Planning

In January, Amy Glasmeier will take over as head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, the longest-running continuous planning program in the United States, repeatedly ranked #1 in the nation. She is the twelfth department head since the program was established in 1933 and the first woman to lead what is now the largest planning faculty in the US, possibly in the world.

An expert in economic geography, regional planning and spatial statistics, Glasmeier was previously on the faculty of the Pennsylvania State University and the University of Texas at Austin. Most recently, she was the E. Willard Miller Professor of Economic Geography at Penn State and the John Whisman Scholar of the Appalachian Regional Commission.

She holds a BS in Environmental Studies and Planning from Sonoma State University and an MA and PhD in City and Regional Planning from Berkeley. She has worked and traveled all over the world, including Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America, and is currently engaged in a retrospective examination of poverty and poverty policy in the US, work that is leading to new perspectives on the nature and extent of persistent poverty here.

In addition to her role as professor of economic geography, Glasmeier has served as director of Penn State’s environmental inquiry minor; as an editor of
Economic Geography and the Cambridge Journal on Regions, Economy, Society; and as director of the Center for Policy Research on Energy, Environment and Community. She has also served as head of the university’s Department of Geography.

Her publications consist of more than 50 scholarly articles and several books, including
Manufacturing Time: Global Competition in the World Watch Industry, 1795-2000 (Guilford Press, 2000); and From Combines to Computers: Rural Services and Development in the Age of Information Technology, with Marie Howland (SUNY Press, 1995).

Her most recent book –
An Atlas of Poverty in America: One Nation, Pulling Apart 1960-2003 (Routledge Press, 2005) – examines the experience of people and places in poverty since the 1960s, looks across the last four decades at poverty in America and recounts the history of poverty policy since the 1940s.

During one of her frequent visits to the MIT campus this fall, she took some time from her schedule for a get-acquainted chat:

How did you end up in a geography department? Your training is in regional economic development and city planning.
Serendipity, really. Geography gave me a context to explore my theoretical interests which are about the relationship between economics and spatial change. Also, in the early 1980s, there was a strong affinity between geography and planning. This was especially the case in Europe, particularly the UK where geographers were studying the impact of industrial restructuring on regions and brought a level of theoretical realism to such problems. Coincidentally, at the same time, faculty in DUSP – such as Bennett Harrison, Lloyd Rodwin and Karen Polenske, among others – also were interested in and writing about regional change. The two academic domains at the time – geography and planning – were mutually supportive and constitutive of similar strands of thinking. Geography journals were an obvious venue for publication of such ideas.

What’s the benefit of the crossover?
I specialize in economic geography. The field, while grounded in economics, is rooted in history, sensitive to institutional context and recognizes the importance of contingency. More generally, the discipline of geography is an hospitable realm in which to study spatial economic problems. Being a part of Penn State’s geography department has also had benefit for me. I have been exposed to some of the world’s best scientists and academics studying such varied topics as landscape and political ecology, geovisualization, vulnerability, climatology, economic geography and climate change – five faculty members in my current college were lead authors on the recent IPCC report. I feel I now have a great appreciation for the science of many cutting edge intellectual realms.

Why did you want to come to MIT at this moment in your career?
The offer to be a leader in the department and to be in a policy environment is a fabulous opportunity. One of my goals is to participate in dialogs about the spatial implications of poverty. Having written An Atlas of Poverty in America and developed spatial tools to study economic vulnerability, I also want to be a more aggressive player in debates about globalization and economic development, climate change and economic inequality. I feel MIT offers me a new venue in which these sets of issues can be explored, especially given the student body, including undergraduates and graduates. At MIT, I’m going to have access to exceptional students who are interested in the big issues of our time. I believe collaborations with colleagues on campus also will expose me to new ideas and allow me to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the causes and consequences of economic change. I believe if I do a good job of raising research funding, that I will be able to create a team of colleagues and students to tackle big problems. I am also excited to work in a well-run organization like MIT. I am pleased to be stepping into a place with a fabulous, absolutely stunning staff, outstanding colleagues and an institute of world renown. It’s thrilling, actually. I feel like I’m going to be very well supported in what I’m here to do.

And what do you think you’ll bring to MIT?
I spent the last 17 years in a college of science, engineering and social science. I have been a part of teams with physical and social scientists and engineers tackling big problems. I am an interdisciplinarian and believe in the multidisciplinary approach to problem solving. This is particularly necessary in areas like climate change, urbanization, spatial disease transmission and many others. My ability to participate in projects addressing such issues is not because I’m a climate change or global health expert, but because I’ve been working in an environment where I have had the ability to collaborate with colleagues who are internationally renowned in studying such problems. I provide economic geographic analysis, but I also design and execute project evaluations. Thus, I am invited on projects to fulfill such roles. To be a faculty member at MIT magnifies my opportunities to learn and develop my intellectual capacity to work on big problems. I am looking forward to contributing to projects addressing the world’s grand challenges.

Why do you think MIT wanted you?
From my perspective, I think of myself as straightforward and pragmatic. I’m all about getting things done and making sure people are taken care of. But Dean Santos would be able to provide more insight into this question than I can. We got to know each other during the interview process. When I was first interviewed, Dean Santos did something very unusual. She came to visit me at Penn State.

That is sort of unusual.
It was a brilliant idea, I think. Over the course of the afternoon, she got to know me and she must have decided we could work together and that I had a temperament she could relate to. In preparing for her visit, I realized if there was something I could give her, it would be to understand the place I was from. I also planned her visit with an eye to getting my own perspective on the world from which she comes. My instinct in trying to get to know her was to share the built environment in which I work, so I took her to see the new LEED-certified building of the Landscape Architecture and Architecture programs. It is a beautiful building, it has beautiful workspaces, the students love it and it’s built around an integrated vision of design education. We shared a sensibility about the importance of a great work space to stimulate creativity and encourage expression.

That seems like it was a good move.
We walked downtown and we sat in a coffee shop and talked for almost three hours. We talked nonstop about ideas and vision and theory and the world and materials; we talked about many things, and when she left I believe she had a good idea of who I am and how I think. It was some time before I heard from her again. The next contact came as I was getting ready to leave for a surprise anniversary trip to Italy. I got a call from her office indicating she was going to offer me the job. I was both thrilled and stopped in my tracks. I had a lot to think about. I had to ask myself, what would it be like to be a faculty member at one of the best universities in world? Will it make a difference in my ability to impact the issues I care about? The answer was obvious. I had nothing to lose and had so much to gain. If it could work out for my family, I knew this opportunity would be great and fun to try. And it did work out for my family. So here I am.

What’s on your list of things to do now?
My research revolves around four themes: regions, energy, economy and environment. I am planning to shift my work on regional development and community well-being from Penn State to MIT. I plan to contribute to the department’s outstanding work on equity and environment. I want to inspire students to believe that, like me, they can do anything they want if they put their minds to it and are willing to work hard for it. I expect to have a lot of fun, including possibly leading wilderness trips, certainly listening to smart people around campus, and I also want to row on the Charles. I am sure I will not run out of things to do.